Russia and the Power of Social Media


Half a century is a long time in international politics. In 1959, when Khrushchev visited the American National Exhibition in Moscow, he was shown a model American kitchen and told by his counterpart, then Vice-President Richard Nixon, of the wonders of capitalism in easing the domestic burden of the Western housewife. His scathing reply was that this backwards attitude towards women “does not occur under Communism”. This was not an isolated incident, but part of a wider pattern of cultural conflict: viewing marriage as a bourgeois institution, the Soviet regime made divorce so easy that the Palace of Marital Union in Kiev was viewed as a laughing stock; meanwhile, a key plank of McCarthy’s Red Scare was the paranoid persecution of homosexuals as a threat to the American family.

Fast-forward to today and Russia and the West are again increasingly at loggerheads, but this time the cultural battleground is reversed. Russian lawmakers extol the virtues of conservative Christian social attitudes whilst the West, increasingly tending towards a more socially progressive outlook, lambasts the country’s repressive treatment of sexual minorities. When the US Supreme Court declared bans on same sex marriage unconstitutional and Facebook erupted into a sea of rainbow colours, the suggestion by legislator Vitaly Molonov that Russia ban the website for breaking its law against “gay propaganda” was met with outrage and disgust. 

The argument made by Molonov concerning Facebook, that the website ought to be banned for breaching Russian laws against the “promotion” of homosexuality in a manner visible to children, ties in to wider Russian critiques of a hegemonic western media promoting a socially liberal agenda at the expense of nations’ rights to determine moral questions for themselves. A glance at the responses to the Supreme Court ruling from most large, mainstream western media organisations tells us that this is not without substance. Western elites tend to support policies like same sex marriage out of proportion to the views of their consumers, who are much more divided in their views.

The case of Facebook is particularly interesting. When logging into Facebook, a Russian uses a means of communication whose structure, down to the smallest detail, is continually designed and re-designed by Americans. And the structure of a communications system can powerfully influence the content it produces. Facebook and Twitter are inherently about self-promotion, about asserting individual preferences and tastes in a sphere where community structures, if represented at all, are dissolvable at click of a button. Small wonder that just as community-minded commentators in the Anglosphere used to rail against the ills of television, so too social conservatives in Russia are suspicious of social media. 

Neither is the choice to use social media one made in isolation. The whole business model of the dominant platforms is that of achieving a critical mass of members, at which point a cost, in isolation, is imposed on those slow to take them up. In a globalising world, this increasingly looks to the Russian right like a cost imposed by liberal minded Californians on God-fearing Russian families against their will and consent. For people like Molonov, the decision to use a platform that promotes individualism and self-regard is one that ought to have been taken collectively, not through formally free global markets that allow liberal America to impose its values abroad. 

If this all sounds disturbingly authoritarian, on one level, of course, it is. But there is no point in getting carried away in our outrage. Not so long ago, here in the UK, similar arguments were widely accepted for the banning of pirate radio stations in the days of the BBC’s broadcasting monopoly in order to safeguard cultural standards. Of course, it is far easier, and thus a more significant restriction if one is prevented from doing so, to sign up on Facebook than to create a radio broadcasting station. And actually banning foreign broadcasting was a step few liberal democracies ever had the stomach to take. 

Whether the idea is as egregious a violation of human rights as our media suggest, however, is far from clear. Certainly it is illiberal and dangerous, and speaks to a wider culture of censorship in Russia. In any case this is not a defence of the idea, or of Russian cultural and media policy generally, just a plea that our governments might make better choices if we took the time to understand it, and to understand the fact that Russian conservatives are often more than just simple bigots.